California: Take me out to the ball game

By Dylan Cleaver

America's favourite summer pastime can be a hypnotic experience, writes Dylan Cleaver.

Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Sonny Gray. Photo / AP
Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Sonny Gray. Photo / AP

No sooner had the Super Bowl confetti been cleared than another American sporting tradition began - Spring Training.

Major League Baseball teams in frigid locales have packed up their kitbags and headed for sunshine states like Florida and Arizona in 18-wheelers packed to the gunwhales with more than 20,000 baseballs, 1000 bats, 20 cases of bubble gum and 60 cases of sunflower seeds.

They have made the first tyre tracks on one of the more circuitous sporting odysseys.

The six-to-eight weeks of Spring Training are preparation for a 162-game regular season. It is said Babe Ruth fuelled his seasons with a steady intake of beer and tobacco, a regimen copied by many until a new wave of more chemically complex dietary fads became de rigueur - here's looking at you Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and A-Rod. But honestly, when you're playing about 26 games a month, you can almost excuse those looking for a syringe and a shortcut.

Bonds achieved most of his record-breaking batting feats playing for the Giants at AT&T Park, a state-of-the-art ballpark on the shores of San Francisco Bay. It would be the perfect place to while away an afternoon, dreaming up lines for a travel story about experiencing one one-hundred and sixty-secondth of a season.

Yeah, but no.

Across the Bay, in the less salubrious city of Oakland, stands another baseball monument - the Coliseum, a multi-purpose stadium that is generally accepted as the least sexy venue on the MLB circuit.

It's here the Oakland A's ply their trade in the American League (MLB is divided up into American and National leagues).

The A's have been a fascinating study in how to turn a little into a lot, long before Brad Pitt burst into celluloid portraying the club's charismatic general manager Billy Beane. It was Beane and assistant Paul DePodesta, played by Jonah Hill, who made moneyball famous before Moneyball made moneyball famous.

A quick recap of the principles: established theories of team chemistry and talent scouting are virtually worthless; you can pretty much tell everything you need to know about a player and, by extension, how a team will perform, by deep statistical analysis, known as sabermetrics.

Okay, so that's a very broad brush, but for a sports-obsessed nerd with a love of stats and a cynical dislike of coaches and selectors who use terms like "gut instinct" and "intangibles" to explain incomprehensible decisions, it suits my narrative.

But I digress. Where we should be in this story right now is on a BART train, shooting across the Bay Bridge, observing the shift in aesthetic and sensibility from uber-trendy San Fran to blue-collar Oakland.

The Coliseum stands out like a sore thumb in a wasteland of broken fingers. Carparks, train tracks and overbridges paint an unlovely picture of the Cement Age, with the Coliseum its centrepiece.

Baseball fans enjoying the show. Photo / AP
Baseball fans enjoying the show. Photo / AP

The stadium is infamous for sewerage issues and empty seats, yet there is something about it. There are old-school ticket booths and a range of specials that make it one of the USA's more affordable sporting nights. At the best of times there are plenty of seats to choose from and a match-up against the similarly small-market but over-achieving Tampa Rays is not the best of times for A's bean-counters (they are considering shifting to a more pleasant venue in kind-of nearby San Jose).

If this all makes it sound like a trip to the Coliseum is like visiting somewhere south of Purgatory, that's just not true. There's an endearing shabbiness to the park and that sense of endearment is only increased when you're treated like an adult from the moment you enter.

There's a range of beers, from the awful big brands to highly contagious craft beers. You can go Irish, you can go Mexican, you can go corn dogs. Hell, if you want a mojito or a margarita, that's fine, too. For somebody that has railed against the ridiculous exclusive pourage status of New Zealand's major stadiums and the appalling food served at most, there was only one word that sufficed: "Hallelujah!"

Because you need a good range of comestibles to truly enjoy baseball. It's a game that moves with gentle, graceful rhythms occasionally interrupted by sudden violence. You can get caught out by the inactivity.

The night I was there, I stood to catch the attention of a churro vendor just when a home player belted a three-run homer - no mean feat in this cavernous park. Two fans on the same row as me assumed I was instead aiming high fives at them - what followed was an awkward example of why white middle-aged men should always think twice about trying to engage in indiscriminate high fives.

Some people like to compare it to T20 cricket but apart from the length of time the match takes, there is little in common. T20 cricket is compact and muscular, baseball feels elongated by comparison. You can dis- and re-engage many times and there is only rarely a sense that the game is more than a small part in a 162-chapter story.

Fans know they're not going to win every game. They did win this night but it didn't seem to affect anybody's equanimity. There'll be another game tomorrow, and the next day, and the next ...

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily to San Francisco.

Further information: See DiscoverAmerica.com for more on visiting California.

- NZ Herald

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